considering paul mpagi sepuya

Figure 1 – courtesy of

Paul Sepuya continues the tradition of the nude but explores the concept in a more modern sense. His photography is contradictory, in the sense that it can be incredibly intimate, but also leave us craving intimacy, it can be open or fragmented,  explicit in its exploration of homoeroticism or more benign. The sense of fragmentation is a major theme in his work, which is rather interesting when considering his relationship to queer culture and queer society.

“In a sense I am thinking about queer erotic subjectivity in the space of my photographs in the same way, between myself, the subjects depicted, and the viewer as developing as an ongoing process.”


Figure 2 – courtesy of


One of my favourite photographs (Figure 2) is very reminiscent of classical male nudes, especially in the pose. The twisting of his body, even down to the sitter’s feet is highly choreographed but the overall outcome is stunning. The smaller additional pictures dotted around remind us of more classical ideas of sculpture and the body. Yet Sepuya’s photograph is also modern – we are aware of the camera, we are aware of the fact that this is a self-portrait. I think these facts remind us of the internet and the modern use of nudes with sexting and other pornographic practices on the internet. Sepuya is taking a nude – but making it art, and reminding us of the art historical concept of the nude.

Other photographs by Sepuya remind me very much of

Figure 4 – courtesy of

Robert Mapplethorpe’s work. Themes of homoeroticism and the relationship between subject and artist/viewer are explored in both their works.

It’s very interesting to think about the reception of both these artists. Mapplethorpe remained a controversial figure throughout his lifetime; his 1989 solo exhibition tour, The Perfect Moment, was cancelled by one of the hosts, The Corcoran Gallery of Art because of the homoerotic themes present in Mapplethorpe’s work. I don’t believe Sepuya’s work has sparked any kind of controversy on a similar level to Mapplethorpe’s.


Sepuya’s questioning of the relationship between sitter and viewer is also very interesting. “I was thinking about how portraiture works within historic homoerotic and contemporary queer cultural, sexual and social exchange; of how the body relates to the generic props and elements of of studio photography, and looking at the fundamental operations of photographic production and deconstruction.” The sense of intimacy and interrupted intimacy Sepuya is able to capture through his photographs is visually stunning but also very intriguing.

Figure 5 – courtesy of


In the case of figure 5, any intimacy we may feel from the figure’s sexually vulnerable and open state of being, is literally sliced in half to create a sense of disjointedness. We cannot reach him, nor can he connect with us. I think also the use of black and white further separates the viewer and the figure – he’s not as immediate, not as close.

Overall, Sepuya’s work is a very modern take on classical themes, but also a depiction of modern sexuality. His both is both visually beautiful and intriguing through the way Sepuya explores his themes.



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Written by Emily Stokes

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